The Unhelpful Data Found In: “American Nones: Profile of the No Religion Population”

Researchers Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar released the results of a study called “American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population” (PDF).

It’s possibly the most frustrating study I’ve come across. It says so much without actually saying anything.

It begins with the issue of describing who the Nones are: “The irreligious, the unreligious, the anti-religious, and the anti-clerical.”

So they’re atheists? No. In fact, more than half of them (51%) believe in a “higher power.” The Nones include atheists, agnostics, “deists,” people who are spiritual (whatever the heck that means), etc. It’s basically a mixture of all those people who don’t assign themselves a religious label.

The data tell us pretty much what you would expect from that group:

Nones are mostly male — 60% compared to 40% women.

Most Nones are 1st generation. Only about a third of “current” Nones were Nones when they were 12.

Nones are more likely to accept evolution (61%) than the general public (38%). (Though I’m still embarrassed the number is so low for us.)

No real surprises.

If anything, what I get from all this material is that we need to do a better job of linking together belief in spiritual woo and the God delusion — there’s no evidence for any of them and if you rid your mind of one of them, you might as well toss out the rest of it, too.

We also need to help atheists — real atheists — come out of the closet. They need to be motivated to do it, they need to know there is support for them, and they need to feel safe.

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  • Nones are more likely to accept evolution (61%) than the general public (38%).

    Ok, I really want an explanation for that one. Is the other 39% mostly people who don’t know/don’t care or is it a bunch of New Agers dragging our numbers down? Someone needs to do a follow up survey with more specific questions on it. This one is too vague.

  • Amyable Atheist

    “we need to do a better job of linking together belief in spiritual woo and the God delusion — there’s no evidence for any of them and if you rid your mind of one of them, you might as well toss out the rest of it, too.”

    I completely agree, Hemant! One of the things I’d love to do is track down the Catholic nun who told my class, 6th grade or so and right around Halloween, that belief in any supernatural forces like witches, ghosts, goblins, etc. was a sin because it meant assigning greater-than-human powers to something besides God/Jebus/Holy Spirit and the whole Saint Posse.

    This was in a fairly liberal parish school where they let us have our Halloween and didn’t try to ban kiddie wizarding fiction (although it hadn’t been invented yet). It took me several more years to really find the stunning beauty and intellectual honesty of a reasoned, atheistic approach to life, but thanks to Sister Whoever She Was, the seed was planted in me to ask “if goblins are ridiculous, how exactly is god not equally so?”

    In terms of working with the “nones,” I think this kind of critical thinking challenge is a more accessible and uncondescending means of helping people to arrive at a rational position on their own. Man, you ARE a good teacher!

  • skinman

    people who are spiritual (whatever the heck that means)

    I know someone that believes in angels but not in a god. I would call her spiritual. For whatever that is worth.

  • bill

    yeah seriously, spiritual should NEVER be lumped in a group with atheists. deists i guess because they don’t believe in supernatural interacting with the world. this whole none thing is so broad it doesn’t really represent anything, and me saying this is just echoing what hemant already said. anyways, i treat a “spiritual” (and probably a deist too) person the same way i treat a religious one, there is simply no logical reason to believe in spirits or forces or whatever the heck it is a “spiritual” person believes in.

  • So they’re atheists? No. In fact, more than half of them (51%) believe in a “higher power.” The Nones include atheists, agnostics, “deists,” people who are spiritual (whatever the heck that means), etc. It’s basically a mixture of all those people who don’t assign themselves a religious label.

    Nones are more likely to accept evolution (61%) than the general public (38%). (Though I’m still embarrassed the number is so low for us.)

    They are not “us”. Half of them believe in a god…want to guess at any possible correlations between believing in a god and not accepting evolution? Don’t be embarrassed, this is just evidence that any belief in a god ruins your critical thinking skills, it says nothing about atheists.

  • Scott Turner

    Religious belief is often compared to drug dependence – it kills the pain of an uncaring universe and the fear of death. If that’s true, then this data is not so discouraging. Weening away from any unhelpful dependence can be a difficult process. It helps if the people around firm, fair, and kind.

  • Carly

    I must admit I find this post and its comments quite disappointing. I’ve been a silent observer for a while now and have found this blog level headed and well…”friendly”.

    I consider myself a spiritual agnostic, so would put myself in the “nones” category (but also completely accept evolution). Some days I approach theism, many days I’m closer to a deist/pantheist. I have honestly attempted the atheist mindset at times, but always find it unavoidably collapsing to nihlism (for ME). I am completely open to the idea that atheists can be joyful, moral people even though they interpret the world in a different way I do.

    Atheists are constantly complaining that people are prejudiced against them, and in many ways they are right, especially in the States. They have every right to be concerned and angry about all the wackos out there, (even as they often fail to appreciate any help from liberal theists and those wishy-washy agnostics in bringing change about). But in all honesty, as I continually try to see where they are coming from and re-set my mindset to be open to their ideas, I will inevitably see some posting about how “spiritual” people are incapable of critical thought or of appreciating the mysteries of the world. This unavoidably reinforces the stereotpe that many atheists are arrogant and as tied to their beliefs (or interpretation of reality if you will) as the Christian fundies that I ran from years ago.

    You seem incapable of comprehending how someone who believes in a “higher power” can see the “stunning beauty” of the world. How are you being any less bigoted than the theists who say the same things about you? You aren’t in their heads, you have no right to compare your subjective experience with theirs. All you can say is that for YOU, you are better able to appreciate mystery without bothering with things you are unable to get a clear picture of. But not everyone’s brain works in the same way!!

    Facts still have to be interpreted through some lens or other. If that wasn’t the case, there would never be any argument about anything. You never accept that some people come to a “I am a none who believes in something” position through YEARS of research, contemplation and careful thought. Just because you believe in “something” does not mean that you are into all New Age stuff that has in fact been disproven. But there is no evidence EITHER WAY of how the world exists in the first place, there are so many things that are unexplained and perhaps unexplainable….we are all limited by our experience, our own unique psychological issues, our own extremely limited ability to comprehend the bigger questions in life. This isn’t about the teapot for which there is no empirical evidence. This is about putting together some tentative hypothesis about why the world is the way it is AT ALL,… and so I respectfully disagree with you – it is a leap of faith either way, at least at this point.

    Ps: it IS troublesome that the percentage who accept evolution is so low, my comment is only meant to point out the tendency to oversimplify and stereotype open-minded spiritual people that I am seeing again and again by atheists (while in the same sentence they complain about being oversimplified and stereotyped!!)

    -further, in my experience, the vast majority of the public has simply never had evolution explained to them in a way that makes sense because it is a counter-intuitive thing if you aren’t familiar with biochemistry etc. you shouldn’t assume that they don’t accept it because the evil God meme is blocking their brain

  • I suppose there are some ‘scientists’ who aren’t quite all there. None of us have ever claimed that Science was perfect or infallible. It just does a better job then “God did it.”

  • Peregrine

    I’ve got to agree with Carly to a certain extent. I’ve been an atheist for a long time; nearly half my life. And I find it more than a little ironic when someone finds it necessary to tell me I’m doin’ it wrong, as if there’s a right way.

    Apparently my 30 minutes of meditation in the morning is enough to loose me some atheist cred on certain topics? “Uh, ah! You’re Buddhist, you’re ‘spiritual’, you have ‘beliefs’, you’re out of the atheist club!”

    There’s a club?

    It’s true, I consider myself an atheist, but also a Buddhist. And sometimes I feel closer to one than to the other. And this is one of those times, and you can probably guess which way I’m leaning. (Even though I’ve noticed my tone the last day or so going the other direction. I’m a puzzle, even to myself. Maybe I should just become a proud ‘none’.)

    You want to know some of the reasons people are reluctant to come out? Why people are reluctant to take that further step to disbelief?

    Certain attitudes that creep out every once in a while tend to make some of these ‘nones’ reluctant to hitch up to your wagon. Oh, you can come up with some sophisticated, even ‘logical’ or ‘rational’ reasons for these attitudes, but that doesn’t make atheism an approachable world view.

    Like it or not, we are an assorted bunch, spanning the spectrum from doe-eyed spiritualist to cold, rational anti-theist, and then some. None of us have ownership of the umbrella term “atheist”, because there’s nothing to own! It’s defined more often in terms of what it’s not than what it is. By it’s own admission, there’s no substance there. And if we want to coexist with believers on an even keel, we’ve got to accept that, and present that face to the world.

  • I’ve always found the “non-religious” category a strange thing, and I’m glad to have a bit more insight into who all is in the category. I sympathize with both general attitudes here: I’m basically a materialist, I don’t believe in anything supernatural. Part of me feels strange being lumped together with people who believe in human spirits or energy as real things, because I definitely don’t feel at all the same as them. And then there’s people who never really think about this stuff, which is really different from me. But, on the other hand, the fact that many of my closest friends are in these non-materialist non-religious categories suggests that there might be good reasons to lump us all together. And really, I like hearing about my friends spiritual journeys, it’s only when they start getting snippy about either atheists or Christians or what not that I start to get bothered.

    I realized a few years ago that I believe in personal religious freedom more than I believe in even my most deeply held beliefs in the nature of reality. I can engage with anyone who is engaging with their experiences and trying honestly and intelligently to figure them out. I can’t really connect with people who just follow some dogma. And maybe that’s what all of us “None’s” have in common to some degree.

  • muggle

    I think there’s some lack of understanding of basic definitions of words. Nonreligious and Atheist aren’t necessarially the same thing. Spirtual would be more in the nonreligious category. Atheist literally means without a belief in god. If you believe in a higher power, or angels, umm, that isn’t quite being totally without belief even if you aren’t religious.

    And Nones? What the hell is that? Am I the only one that finds that somewhat degrading? It’s kind of like that damnable phrase faith or lack thereof. Um I don’t lack anything. I have an absence of faith. But it isn’t a lack any more than not having a third eye tattooed on my forehead is a lack. It’s silly and insulting.

  • Matt D

    To my way of thinking “atheist/ism” is pretty black and white. Not only does it mean no belief in a god, it also means no belief in anything supernatural (eg ghosts, tarot, applied kinesiolgy, reiki, oiuja, blah, blah)

    Feel free to not believe in goad but still hold on to some “spirituality” – it aint a crime, but you aint an Atheist in my book

    But maybe mine’s not a great definition. I recently saw the term “PEARList” (acronym for Physical Evidence And Reason Logic).

    Maybe that’s what I am? Sounds a bit of a wank though.

    Is there a great schism unfolding here….

  • Matt D: I’d call you an atheist, a natural materialist and a skeptic. Me too.

    To me “atheism” means what it says and no more:

    a-theist = “without gods”

    So you can have atheists that believe in ghosts, reiki and such, as weird as I think such beliefs are.